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Remembering William H. Gass: Resources for Exploring a Life in Sentences – Part I

William H. Gass in his home, 1990

We were saddened to hear of the death of William H. Gass, at the age of 93. As the many obituaries and tributes have attested and will attest, with his passing we have lost an important and still-active voice in American letters (Eyes, a collection of short stories and novellas was published in 2015), whose innovative fiction and essays represent as significant a body of work as any in the post-war era. From our perspective, we also lost an important figure at Washington University, where he taught philosophy for thirty years (remaining as an emeritus professor until his death), founded the International Writers Center (IWC), and championed the Modern Literature Collection (MLC). Last but certainly not least, we also lost a good friend and a fine human being.

In 1964, Gass became one of the first authors the MLC solicited for materials, even before the 1966 publication of his debut novel Omensetter’s Luck, which at that point had been rejected by twelve publishers.  In those early years and the years that followed his 1969 appointment to the philosophy faculty of Washington University, Gass maintained a close relationship to the MLC, periodically donating his manuscripts and other papers. Here is an excerpt from Gass’s letter to Mona Van Duyn, in response to being solicited for the MLC, in 1964:

In 1991, Gass curated an exhibition for the inauguration of the IWC, called “A Temple of Texts: 50 Literary Pillars,” in collaboration with Special Collections. He produced an essay for the companion catalog that would eventually become the title essay of his award-winning collection, A Temple of Texts. In 1995, Special Collections hosted a retrospective exhibition of Gass’s work, called “Worlds Within Words,” to commemorate the publication of his long-awaited novel, The Tunnel.

Postcard advertising the William H. Gass Words Within Words exhibition. The postcard has the exhibition name centered and highlighted; the background is a loop of text up and down the page with "Words" repeated without space.
Postcard advertising the exhibition

Gass maintained a close relationship with the MLC past his retirement from teaching and the IWC. He was the driving force behind the 2002 acquisition of the papers of his late friend, the novelist William Gaddis. Here is the initial letter he wrote to Gaddis’s son Michael, concerning the accessibility and availability of his late father’s papers, showcasing more of Gass’s epistolary charm:

A letter to Matthew Gaddis, William's son, from Bill Gass with Washington University's Arts and Sciences Department petitioning for access to the Gaddis archive and questioning wither the archive may be for sale.

In 2004 Special Collections hosted a celebration of Gass on the occasion of his 80th birthday, for which a volume of tributes and remembrances was commissioned from his friends and contemporaries, and published in a special, Fall 2004 issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction. This event featured readings by novelist Ethan Bumas, literary critic Marc Chenetier, poet Heather McHugh, and novelist Joanna Scott; comments by Gass’s Washington University colleagues, Chancellor Emeritus William Danforth, Philosophy Professor Emeritus Richard “Red” Watson; and Dean of University Libraries Shirley Baker; and the presentation of the volume of essays by various distinguished writers.

A group photo of the celebration had for William Gass in the Whispers Cafe of the John M. Olin Library, October 2004.
A Celebration of William Gass, October 7, 2004, Whispers Cafe, John M. Olin Library

In 2013, to celebrate the publication of his novel, Middle C, the Libraries sponsored a reading on campus and Special Collections presented a life-spanning exhibition, called “The Soul Inside the Sentence,” which included items from the William Gass Papers, the International Writers Center Archive, and on loan from Bill and Mary Gass. The digital companion to the exhibition is available here (and throughout this post). It contains selected documents, photographs, audio and video clips, and other items relating to the author’s life, from his earliest education to his teaching days and his writings, as well as his photography, his collaborative work with others, and more.

Materials held in the William H. Gass Papers include thousands of pages of manuscripts towards his fiction and essays and 52 boxes of correspondence. The Modern Literature Collection also holds the archive of the International Writers Center, which Gass and associate director Lorin Cuoco donated following his retirement and her resignation from the IWC. See the finding aid here: International Writers Center Archive.

Over the coming weeks and months we will be posting more from “The Soul Inside the Sentence,” the William H. Gass Papers, the International Writers Center Archive, our YouTube channel, and more, to do our part in celebrating this irreplaceable man and the incredible work he leaves behind. In the meantime, we encourage you to explore the sites we have linked here on your own, and to visit Reading William Gass for other resources. We will of course also keep our readers posted on the upcoming tribute at Washington University next year.